Tugging at the roots of a sycamore in the yard of her future home, a pregnant woman named Holly unearths a blue box. Prying it open, she finds the skeletal remains of an infant. She gasps and drops the bones onto the ground: “The skull had landed right in front of her. Smiling. Black eyeholes insanely piercing. Two minuscule tooth-thingies on the bottom jaw looked ready to bite. . . . It kept staring. Like it knew something.” Holly, who has named her soon-to-be-born baby Aimee — which, in French, means “beloved” — retches and begins to scream.
Infants cherished and infants destroyed are at the center — or at what can genuinely be called the heart — of Jonathan Kellerman’s “Guilt,” the solid latest installment in the prolific author’s series of thrillers featuring psychologist-sleuth Alex Delaware. Like Kellerman, who has a background in child clinical psychology, Delaware has worked cases involving child abuse. But this one may be the most wrenching of all — for him and for the reader — as it involves newborns, surely the most innocent and defenseless of all victims.
Delaware and his partner, Los Angeles Police Lt. Milo Sturgis, barely begin to sift through the scant clues to the infant’s identity and to the reasons for its covert burial before a worker discovers the scattered bones of another infant in a nearby park. And in another section of the park lies the body of a woman in her 20s or 30s, dead of a gunshot wound. The partners reason that the discovery of two infant skeletons in a matter of days can’t be a coincidence. Was the dead woman their mother and/or killer?
A briskly paced investigation ensues, with the collected, deliberate Delaware and the punchy, aggressive Sturgis pulling at strands of information and bouncing hypotheses off each other in scenes that crackle with sharp banter.
But it’s Delaware’s confident demeanor as a professional psychologist that largely sets the thriller’s tone, which is cool, brisk and polished. His personal life is also rather steady — he’s in a happy, nurturing relationship with a live-in partner and he has no vices, neuroses or obsessions haunting him at 3 a.m.
But you would be mistaken to describe him — or this case — as unexciting. The astute Delaware lets his sources take center stage, listening and watching keenly as they answer his questions in a series of terse, revealing and charged scenes that are rich in telling detail.
Thus, the sister of the woman shot in the park twists a diamond stud in her ear and admits, “I guess this is the point where I tell you we weren’t close. And feel crappy about it.” The tremors in a man’s hands are “mimicked by quivers along his jawline.” When Delaware confronts a doctor who is eating her lunch with a concise, accurate summation of a past tragedy, “her response was to saw a cube of Jell-O.”
The investigation eventually zeroes in on Tinseltown, fertile ground indeed for a tale of child abuse. Delaware’s infiltration of a movie star’s estate ramps up suspense for a deftly handled action finale. Here, when handed one of the more poignant pieces of information ever to cap a case, Delaware fights tears. The reader may, as well, while contemplating the fate of a newborn in a turbulent world.
Bartell is an arts and travel writer living in Manhattan.
By Jonathan Kellerman
Ballantine. 378 pp. $28